Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Living Thelema: A Practical Guide to Attainment in Aleister Crowley’s System of Magick by David Shoemaker.
Living Thelema is a brand that David Shoemaker has developed through a website and podcast segments by that name, and in this book which collects essays on a fairly wide range of topics within the field of orthopractic Thelemic magick. Many of these were previously published elsewhere, and despite revisions for this volume, they don’t always seem to be addressing a consistent audience. In his introduction, the author claims that the book is intended as a primer, but with idiosyncratic insights to benefit more experienced practitioners. Many of the essays conclude with short bibliographies of “recommended reading.”
As soon as I got into the first essay, I started to encounter some problems. In this “Introduction to the Qabalah” Dr. Shoemaker defines “The Qabalah” simply as “the mystical branch of the Jewish tradition” (4). A few pages later, he begins referring to “the Hermetic Qabalah” (9), but at no point does he clarify any relationship or distinction between the Jewish Qabalah and the Hermetic Qabalah, let alone their relationship to Thelema. Such sloppiness in the history of religions, along with the faulty translation of sephiroth as “spheres” (4), may be par for the course in occult manuals, but when the chapter opens with a note boasting that “A different version of this essay appeared in the instructor’s manual of … an undergraduate psychology textbook” (3), the errors are cause for added dismay.
Although there is an “Introduction to the Qabalah,” there is no corresponding “Introduction to Thelema” in this volume. Readers are clearly assumed to be familiar with the existence of an occult movement that recognizes Aleister Crowley as a founding teacher, orients itself to The Book of the Law as sacred writ, and manifests through O.T.O. and A∴A∴ along with newer esoteric orders. The modern history of occultism receives no treatment here—besides the author’s autobiographical introduction.
The “beginner” materials on establishing a magical regimen and fundamental practices are generally clear, and compare favorably to other books of this type, both the explicitly Thelemic ones, and more generic ones on ceremonial magick. The self-helpy tone is reasonably suited to this content, so it doesn’t get in the way here. With this substance in view, the book may in fact be best suited to Thelemites working in ad hoc groups or in solitary circumstances. It has doubtless been welcomed by the author’s own students and others who already view him as an authority.
I guess it’s too much to expect doctrinal insight from a book that claims only to be a “practical guide,” but Living Thelema does seem to offer itself as a primary demonstration of Dr. Shoemaker’s qualities as a “claimant” (his preferred term) to administrative authority in A∴A∴. The book has a colophon containing the A∴A∴ seal, but no assertion of a full imprimatur. The key passages of the book in this respect can be found in the second of its three major sections, which is headed “Perspectives on the Path of Attainment.” I’m afraid that I failed to derive any real insight or inspiration from the content most relevant to this issue, and—without any wish to be drawn into argument—I must confess deep reservations about the picture of O.T.O.’s relationship to A∴A∴ drawn at the end of the chapter on “The Methods and Tools of A∴A∴”
I actually found the language of the doctrinal sections somewhat off-putting in its frequent chattiness, and its ubiquitous use of the abbreviation “K&C of the HGA” to reference that Knowledge and Conversation which is the first critical task of adeptship. Further, I was puzzled by the essay on “The Formulas of L.V.X. and N.O.X.,” which seemed to lack real depth, and to be at pains to counter particular misconceptions that I’ve never seen circulated.
Besides his esoteric credentials and experience, Dr. Shoemaker is a clinical psychologist with a Jungian orientation. His integration of Jungian theory with magical doctrines is, I think, exemplary. He avoids the common pitfall of using Jung’s work to legitimize occultism, as if 20th-century psychological theories were somehow more objectively valid than a body of initiatic practice and esoteric teachings. A strong case can be made for Jung’s de facto standing as an esoteric adept, but to the extent that one accepts that case, it is necessary to see his writings as an exotericization of what he learned in his attainment. They are therefore most useful in providing alternative, confirmatory views of occult processes. The chapter on “The Role of the Ego in the Great Work” in Living Thelema is an admirable use of Jungian ideas in the context of Thelemic initiation. Dr. Shoemaker’s clinical experience is on display chiefly in the third section of the book, which supplies advice regarding mental hygiene and relationship issues for Thelemites. This material seemed unobjectionable in itself, but it did lend something of a remedial, therapeutic flavor to the conclusion of the text.
I have collaborated with Dr. Shoemaker in person on projects under the aegis of O.T.O., and in our interactions I have found him to be personable, perceptive, and prudent. I had high hopes for his first book-length work on magick, but I cannot say they were quite fulfilled. [via]